Our College Football Playoff picks following Week 13
With Notre Dame falling out of contention in Palo Alto, the playoff field is nearly set. Four teams — Alabama, Clemson, Michigan State and Iowa — enter conference championship week knowing that a win should put them in the playoff, and Oklahoma has likely already sealed their spot.
Things could get interesting though, should either North Carolina or Florida win their conference championship, as neither team would be sure of claiming a playoff berth. Instead, the College Football Playoff committee could look to promote either Stanford or Ohio State.
If Stanford beat USC to win the Pac-12, they would be a two-loss conference champion with an impressive late season win over the Irish to their credit. None of their games came against FCS opponents (compared to two such for North Carolina), and the depth of the Pac-12 is greater than that of the ACC. If the committee is forced to choose between the Cardinal and the Tar Heels, it would provide an interesting test case for the importance of record over strength of schedule, or vice versa.
Ohio State would be the wild card. The committee clearly rates them — given that the Buckeyes were regarded as top four material when they had yet to either face a highly-regarded team or play up to their potential. The loss at home to Michigan State hurts their cause, how could it not? The Spartans were without their QB and Ohio State played poorly. However, the Buckeyes responded by putting on a show in Ann Arbor. It’s likely too little too late, but if chaos reigns in conference championship week the Buckeyes could well profit.
The 3-8 Gamecocks gave Clemson a fright, but the Tigers held off their challenge thanks to the play of their star quarterback, Deshaun Watson (+32.9 overall). Watson threw for 279 yards and one touchdown, and added another 114 yards and three touchdowns on the ground on his way to a +5.3 overall grade. The Tigers defense as a whole isn’t matching their early season form, but CB Mackensie Alexander had his best game of the season against the Gamecocks, earning a +3.4 grade and allowing just one pass for three yards into his coverage, despite being targeted seven times.
The Tigers will need Watson at his best again next week when they face a dangerous North Carolina team with the ACC championship and a berth in the playoff on the line. Clemson have allowed Syracuse and South Carolina to keep things close this month – the Tar Heels pose a greater threat than either, having put up 45 or more points in three of their last four games. This may not be an automatic play-in game for North Carolina, but they are a form team and have a dangerous dual threat QB of their own in Marquise Williams (+25.3).
Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama was held in check in the first half of the Iron Bowl, but the Tide were able to grind Auburn down thanks to another monstrous game from running back Derrick Henry (+22.8). Alabama leaned heavily on Henry, giving him 46 carries, he rewarded them by churning out 271 yards and one touchdown. Henry didn’t need help carrying the ball, but he got plenty of assistance from the offensive line, all of whom had grades greater than +1.
We’ve written plenty about the strength and depth of Alabama’s run defense — they have 15 defensive linemen or linebackers with run defense grades greater than +2 , and held Auburn to 91 yards rushing. Their secondary is also grading well, with their six most-featured players all earning coverage grades of +2 or greater. They held Auburn to 169 yards through the air (77 on one play), but will face better passers in the playoff than they have in SEC play.
Alabama faces Florida next week knowing that if they win, they are in the playoff. The Gators couldn’t stop Florida State RB Dalvin Cook this week, so it’s tough to see them shutting down Henry next week, but that’s what they need to do to stand a chance of pulling off the upset.
Oklahoma claimed the Big 12 and effectively became the first team to clinch their playoff berth with a convincing win in Stillwater. Having Baker Mayfield (+50.9) back under center was crucial, but the Sooners won this game on the ground, with running back duo Samaje Perine (+16.9) and Joe Mixon (+15.4) each rushing for two touchdowns and 130+ yards.
As explosive as they can be, it’s not all about offense for the Sooners. 3-4 defensive ends Charles Walker (+32.0) and Charles Tapper (+19.7), and rush linebacker Eric Striker (+32.4) have combined for 22 sacks and 98 total pressures this season, with Striker recording seven pressures against the Cowboys.
The naysayers can point to a loss against Texas and the fact that the Sooners’ three big wins at the end of the season all came against teams playing with backup QBs, but the Sooners are playing as well as anyone and deserve their shot.
Michigan State Spartans
The return of QB Connor Cook (+28.5) steadied the ship for the Spartans, easing them past Penn State and into the Big Ten title game against Iowa with a 248 yard, three-touchdown performance and a +4.5 grade. Cook’s connection with wide receiver Aaron Burbridge (+22.6) was once again on display, with Burbridge leading the team with 75 receiving yards and a rather terrific touchdown score.
The health of Cook is key for the Spartans, and keeping him upright and healthy falls on an offensive line anchored by the excellent Jack Conklin (+24.0) at left tackle. Conklin has given up just one sack and nine total pressures all season.
The Big Ten title decider against Iowa awaits, with the winner all but assured of a place in the playoff. There is an argument that the undefeated Hawkeyes should have this berth ahead of the Spartans, given they beat the Nebraska team that handed the Spartans their only loss. However, the Spartans’ wins over Ohio State, Michigan and Oregon give them the edge. Regardless, this will be settled on the field when they meet in Indianapolis.